Houston is playing championship-caliber baseball in April

Are the Astros giving us a preview of October?

Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa celebrating in game one of the ALDS
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

With their current winning streak of nine games, and coming off a red-hot week that included sweeps of the Yankees and division-leading Mariners, I believe it's totally fair to take a moment to embrace and appreciate what we've seen from the Astros recently. Just like it wasn't the time to hit the panic button after the 2-5 start, I'm not here to tell you the Astros are destined to win the World Series at 11-5. Yet, they are playing like champions recently, and it's been a blast to watch.

Altuve playing like an MVP

Jose Altuve was able to create a complimentary streak to the team's winning streak by hitting a home run in five straight games, capped off by a huge grand slam in the win against the Mariners on Saturday night. The streak came to an end on Sunday, but he maintains a seven-game hitting streak, five of those being multi-hit games which has his average up to .328 on the season. He's seeing the ball as he has in so many of his 200-hit seasons, which has him on pace for another as he continues to be a huge spark to the offense.

Contributions from 1-9

Another facet of this team that is reminiscent of the 2017 championship season is their potent lineup that has threats from top to bottom. The cliché has applied to the Astros so far; there's no easy out for pitchers against this team. Of the players that have been in at least 10 games, they have relatively strong averages ranging from .259 (Tyler White) to .346 (Jake Marisnick). Granted, they have stranded quite a few runners and grounded into several inning-ending double plays, but they have managed to flip the order over or get a clutch hit when it has counted to get the wins.

Starters doing their job

There hasn't been any complete-game shutouts or no-hitters (yet), but the starting rotation has been efficient and done plenty to keep Houston's offense close enough in games to erase deficits or extend leads. It looks like Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole will have another battle to see who can be strikeout leader on the team and possibly the American League; after four starts Cole is tied with Blake Snell on top of the board with 36 Ks while Verlander sits third with 30. As a team, the Astros sit fourth in the AL with a combined 3.25 ERA but have racked up 10 quality starts from their starters, which leads the entire league. It hasn't been all Verlander and Cole, either, with Collin McHugh proving to be a great number three so far. Wade Miley and Brad Peacock haven't had stellar starts to the year, and Peacock is spending a short stint in the bullpen to allow the other starters to work around some upcoming off-days in the schedule, but they have done enough to keep the team ahead or in striking distance.

Locked down bullpen

One of the strongest parts of this past week that may go under the radar with all of Houston's offense is the bullpen's strong performances against two potent lineups; the Yankees and Mariners. Josh James had a horrible inning in what was already a lopsided game, then the Mariners did get a couple of runs off Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski, but they otherwise held these offenses in check. Roberto Osuna has been hot to start the season, already notching seven saves. The late-game trio of Hector Rondon for the seventh, Ryan Pressly for the eighth, then Osuna for the save in the ninth has worked great in close games where the starter has gone six innings. But the relievers have been flexible and have plugged in well when called, whether that's a few innings to close out a close game, or eating multiple innings and holding a big lead.

Staying healthy

With Carlos Correa starting his season a few games late, and Alex Bregman getting a few days off this week with a minor hamstring issue, Houston has shown that they can handle a key player missing. This shows the depth of their bench that can fill in and contribute on both sides of the ball. What we haven't seen, and hopefully won't, is what the team would look like if they have two or more key injuries at one time. That was a trouble for the team last year, one they'd like to avoid if at all possible this season. For now, it's been great seeing a healthy Altuve at the plate and a strong Correa locking things down at shortstop.

Chance at history

With the winning streak currently at nine, the Astros could make history this week if they can tack on four more. The franchise record is twelve games, and the closest we've seen the Astros get to that recently was in 2017 when they hit eleven. They'll have two games in Oakland in the middle of the week, then will travel to Arlington for the weekend series. The way they've been playing, tying or beating the franchise record is certainly within reason against the A's and Rangers.

Best of the best

After sweeping what was the hottest team in baseball in the Mariners over the weekend, it's clear that the Astros are currently on the best streak. Are they also giving us a glimpse into what we may see in October? The Yankees were down a few players, and the Mariners can chalk the sweep up to an off weekend, but I'm not convinced that the recent displays by the Astros are a fluke. If they can stay healthy and play like this for the majority of the remaining season, and carry some momentum into the playoffs, I see this team matching and besting anyone they go up against. The most notable observation from these recent wins? They've simply been electric to watch. They are giving us what we enjoyed so much in 2017 which was the confidence that no matter the score, they can put a few big plays or hits together to pull out a win, and do it against anyone, anywhere.

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

ESPN Houston 97.5 FM
The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome